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Women in Syria’s Economy: A Feminist Review of Women’s Economic Empowerment Projects

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In the years since the Arab Spring uprisings, Syrian women have persisted in their struggle for economic empowerment. Yet despite the progress that has been made, women’s economic empowerment projects promoted and supported by civil society organisations too often fail to address the intersecting structural barriers holding Syrian women back from achieving their full potential. This article offers an overview of these issues and approaches for achieving effective economic empowerment for women in Syria.

Thuraya Hijazi

More than a decade after the Arab Spring uprisings, most of the hopes and aspirations for change that drove people to the streets remain unfulfilled.

In a quick look at the reality of the situation, human rights, humanitarian, and political crises have prevailed, along with increases in various forms of violence, the dominance of patriarchy and patriarchal authorities, and the rise in armament and militarisation.

In the midst of all this, women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region continue in their struggle against systematic discrimination and exclusion in all aspects of political, economic, cultural, and social life.

In Syria, where women have long been excluded from the labour force, the recent war has only added to their burden and exclusion. In addition, most economic empowerment efforts have proved to be ineffective.

This article examines, from a critical feminist lens, how civil society organisations (CSOs) have tried to tackle women’s exclusion from the formal economy through economic empowerment projects. It also explores what would need to happen for those projects to be fit for purpose, in order to achieve actual economic empowerment of women.

Five decades of exclusion and marginalisation

Like the vast majority of the Syrian people, women have been systematically marginalised and impoverished by the Syrian regime, which has deprived them of their political, social, economic, and legal rights. For the past five decades, the regime has worked to distort women’s status, perpetuate their exclusion, impoverish them, and spread negative gender stereotypes about them – such as women being inherently vulnerable or weak. This has been done using customs and traditions, as well as economic policies and discriminatory laws.

Looking at official numbers from Syria’s Central Bureau of Statistics, we see that the participation rate of women in the national workforce did not exceed 13 per cent in 2010. Nevertheless, the accuracy of these official statistics remains problematic, as they do not include women working in the care economy, domestic work, or community support, thus overlooking the economic value of the overall work they do. Hence, their economic participation in the labour force is not counted.

When the pro-democracy protests erupted in March 2011, Syrian women saw an opportunity to claim their rights. They participated in demonstrations, as well as humanitarian, human rights, media, political, and social work. However, when the country’s popular movement devolved into an armed conflict, Syrian women paid double the price. They found themselves threatened with greater food insecurity, oppression, and exploitation, in addition to the various forms of violence perpetrated against them, particularly sexual violence.

Nonetheless, Syrian women insisted on confronting the patriarchal society and other regimes of oppression and marginalisation which curtail women’s rights and freedoms, deny them access to education, and restrict their movement and ability to work.

The war and the subsequent deterioration of Syria’s social and economic conditions presented new and compounding challenges for women. Now, Syrian women had to secure the necessities of life under severe conditions, and assume – in a manner entirely new to the traditional Syrian society – economic responsibilities in place of the male breadwinner, who in many cases was either absent or suffering from a physical disability due to the conflict. This was especially the case in the northwestern regions outside the Syrian regime’s control. In response to this new reality in those areas, and in light of the absence of state institutions, CSOs attempted to fill the void by providing services and job opportunities, albeit with a little degree of success.

Economic empowerment programs: Women as an extension of families, not as citizens with rights

As the battles settled at the end of 2018, CSOs began to prioritise capacity building and livelihood projects by providing grants to establish projects targeting individuals such as vocational training and cash for work (for example, harvesting crops or weaving in exchange for cash). Organisations that sponsor such programs view these projects as contributing to raising the standard of living and reducing poverty and unemployment, as women’s products are distributed to the most vulnerable groups, such as children. While these efforts don’t specifically target women, they do make an effort to include them, i.e. the selection criteria are often designed to give women greater opportunities.

However, through my engagement with the women themselves, it becomes clear that these projects were not designed to empower Syrian women economically as a collective, but rather empower a specific category of women, e.g. Syrian female breadwinners. The mechanism for selecting “beneficiaries” relied on a criteria of “weakness and vulnerability”, requiring that the beneficiary woman be the primary breadwinner for her household, either due to the loss of the male breadwinner or his suffering from a physical disability. The projects also gave preference to divorced or widowed women, with children in their care.

These programs integrated poor and unemployed women – those who had lost their primary male breadwinners – into micro projects, with a view to ensure them a monthly income that is commensurate with their social context and professional capabilities, particularly women with lower educational levels. The criteria for selecting beneficiaries focused on supporting family units rather than empowering women to enter the labour market and to participate in the production process, or supporting their right to have the work they do in their various roles, accounted for in the economy.

Thus, these programs entrenched traditional gender roles, coming from a narrow patriarchal perspective that still views women as extensions of families and not as independent citizens with rights and entitlements that must be achieved and preserved within and outside these family systems.

These interventions were also limited to increasing the productive role of some groups of women, without structurally looking at the economic value of their care, domestic, or community work. Hence, the saying that “women do not work” is far from true, as women play several complex roles in the care economy, domestic, or societal work through community activities or health care.

Accordingly, the real problem, on the one hand, lies in not valuing the aforementioned roles and the societal view of women as inferior so that they remain outside the indicators of economic growth. On the other hand, these projects did not notice the multiple roles and the increasing burdens that fell on women, as they did not consider changing the existing economic structures, but rather the inclusion of women in the labour market without addressing their conditions, and the challenges they face.

Women’s productive roles as an extension of their care roles

Syrian women are still generally employed for jobs that perpetuate traditional and patriarchal gender roles, such as office jobs or positions that require women only. Although women were able to start businesses by obtaining grants to establish individual projects, a significant portion of Syrian women continue to work in home-based projects and traditional professions such as sewing, hairdressing, wool weaving, dairy and cheese manufacturing, and handicrafts. Whether this is due to a genuine desire on the women’s part, a result of their compliance with a society that believes a woman’s place is her house, or a genuine inability to do more diverse work, remains to be known.

Furthermore, the percentage of women who participate in grant programs remains low. This is due to the reluctance of some women to take on such responsibilities, their lack of financial knowledge, or their lack of awareness of the importance of these projects and their potential impact on their lives. Women in Syria are generally new to the labour market, with limited work experience. It is difficult to separate them from their social and cultural context – a context that celebrates and nurtures the idea of a passive mother who sacrifices her own safety and happiness in order to protect her marriage and family.

Economic empowerment from a structural feminist perspective

In order to empower Syrian women economically, grant programs must be accompanied by policies that challenge discriminatory structures, such as patriarchal norms at the societal, economic, and household levels.

In the absence of the concept of participation, women still bear the burden of domestic work, because they did not obtain the required structural change in the community nor in the family, nor through targeting them to enter the labour market. And despite a slight shift in the attitude of Syrian men towards women’s work, they remain in control over what a woman should do, how to do it, and when to do it. As a result, the majority of Syrian women continue to feel unstable and insecure.

This is why the empowerment of Syrian women is yet to happen. True empowerment can only happen by facilitating their access and control over economic resources, improving their ability to manage and make economic decisions, helping them achieve economic independence, and increasing their participation in development and public affairs.

Syrian women persist in their resistance

Despite all these challenges, Syrian women continue to invest in the changes brought about by the war. They have become more alert to the extent to which they are subjected to marginalisation, exploitation, and violence, particularly economic violence. They have become more aware of their rights and of their own circumstances, and they are seeking genuine and meaningful opportunities.

Syrian women today are slowly recognising their place in society and acknowledging the experiences they have gained. They are beginning to discover themselves and their abilities, and what they can and want to do. In comparing their current situation with the past, as well as the situation of other women in their families and community, Syrian women recognise the value of their progress and regard it as a step forward in the struggle to obtain their rights and end discrimination against women.

Women also strive to preserve these entitlements and gains in the coming years, as by the end of wars or conflicts, women are often expected to return to their traditional roles and to bargain over any gains they made during conflicts and wars. These observations stem from the fact that the change that occurred in the roles of women came as a result of need and not as a result of a comprehensive structural change, which makes bargaining and losing it more likely.

Syrian women continue their revolution; they persist in their fight to change reality using simple tools. They seek to maintain their gains and build on them; they also seek to create new roles, in order to truly confront the reality of economic violence and achieve equal economic participation.

The question remains: What should the role of civil society be, and what part should we, as feminists and feminist organisations, take in it?

We should work on economic empowerment programs from a structural human rights perspective. We should also consider expanding collective or cooperative projects for women, so that engaging in productive or income-generating work does not become a tool that doubles their household and family burdens and emotional stress while increasing their social isolation as women lose their connection with relatives and friends. We must develop tools for resistance and confrontation. Only then can economic empowerment become the tool that will push women to confront the systems and structures of discrimination and to act and build their plans towards achieving their goals.

We sought the opinions of some feminist activists in Syria to gather their insights about economic empowerment programs in their current form, and how they could be improved. Here is what they had to share:

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